On Water Diving & Snorkeling
A Scuba Diver’s Guide to Strangford Lough and Lecale Coast
Strangford Lough and the Lecale coast are well known as one of Northern Ireland’s top diving destinations, and rightly so! The abundance and variety of its coastline and richness of biodiversity, geology, maritime archaeology and beauty prove to be an exciting and mysterious place for diving.
This guide is designed to help divers decide which dive spot is best for them according to their ability, safety, equipment and of course their own personal passion, whether it be wildlife, wreck diving or under water habitats. Also included in the guide is important information about access, tidal streams, and the dos and don’ts within the internationally protected site and fishing zones.
Entering Strangford Lough from the Irish Sea you are struck by the narrowness of the rock lined channel and the turbulence of its swift flowing waters (up to 8 knots) which scour the seabed. The appropriately named “Narrows” is just 0.8km wide south of Portaferry and 8km long, which varies in depth from 30m to 66m. As the current speed drops further into the lough, finer sediments cover the bed and shores. The finest mud and sand sediments can be found in extensive tidal flats, such as those at the north of the Lough. The Lough has a deep “y” shaped channel running up its centre but for the most part is less than 10m in depth, where around 70 islands and pladdies can be spotted at low tide.
Strangford Lough is infamous for its tidal flows, whirl pools and overflows, so it can be a treacherous place for visitors and locals alike. Many a ship wreck has met its peril on the numerous hidden rocks and pladdies dotted over the sea bed. The Routen Wheel whirlpool, south of Portaferry, is characterised by heavy boils, whirlpools and short-lived but violent stoppers. It is caused by a ledge of rock only 4.6 metres below the surface, 200m south of Rue Point. The name “Routen Wheel” was given by the Vikings as they thought the sound of it was like cattle snoring. The wheel occurs during both the flood and ebb tide although it tends to be more violent during the ebb. The turbulence lasts for about 400m so it is quite easy to avoid the wheel by keeping to the west side of the channel or hugging the coast down the east, but if you want to investigate more closely, the best time is on the flooding tide. The bar mouth where the Irish Sea meets the lough can be equally violent, but is easily navigated in good conditions thanks to well placed markers and beacons.
Within the lough you will find that the tides will very much dictate how and where you access the water and dive with some dives only possible at slack water, which in the lough lasts a mere 15 minutes so good timing is essential. The tidal range within the Lough varies 4m at springs to 2.5 at neaps, with high water at the mouth of the lough differing considerably by around 2 hours when within the lough.
Tides and currents vary along the eastern coast. You can find useful information for each harbour at
www.visitmyharbour.com Featured Dives
These dive sites have been handpicked by local divers who have tried and tested and marveled at their habitats and species and underwater landscapes. Star species include conger eels, beds of brittle stars and octopus! As always please be aware of the currents in the Lough, you may only have a short window of opportunity so know your tide times. Strangford is also a very busy place so always use an SMB to avoid any unnecessary collisions or getting lost!
The drop off is a popular dive in the narrows of Strangford Lough. Here steep boulder slopes with areas of limestone wall drop to depths of over 60m, making it useful for divers wanting to build up their depth experience. It is sheltered in the narrows and therefore accessible in most weather conditions.
However, it can only be dived as a boat dive at high or low water slack. You can get as much as an hour slack window on neaps but much less on springs – it is usually possible to get two waves of divers in on neaps if you put the first wave in when the tide is slightly running.
Launch at Portaferry or Strangford and aim to be on site forty minutes before high-water or low-water and wait for the tide to slacken – it is advisable to have divers kitted up and ready to drop in when this happens to maximise bottom time.
The dive can be carried out on both HW and LW slack although if you are planning a long decompression stop it is better to dive the site at LW slack; on an ebb tide when the tide picks up divers are usually carried into Ballyhenry Bay but there have been incidences of divers drifting into the path of the ferry! Local divers report that there is a longer slack on low water neaps than high water neaps and the opposite on springs.
The white navigation tower on Ballyhenry island can be used as a marker for the site, if divers are dropped fairly close to this in about 15-20m they can progress to their chosen depth, the slope is fairly gradual to 25m and then very steep; consequently the dive is suitable for divers of all levels of experience (providing they can operate an SMB!).
Boulders and bedrock outcrops are covered in a dense turf of dead men’s fingers (Alcyonium digitatum), antenna hydroids (Nemertesia antennina), and squirrel’s tail hydroid (Sertularia argentea). Look underneath boulders and in crevices in limestone walls and you are likely to spot spiny squat lobsters (Galathea strigosa), tompot blennies (Parablennius gattorugine), lobsters (Hommarus gammarus) and edible crabs (Cancer pagurus). There is normally abundant fish life including cuckoo wrasse (Labrus mixtus) and goldsinny wrasse (Ctenolabrus rupestris). You may be lucky enough to spot a curled octopus (Eledone cirrhosa).
The Alastor, Ringhaddy Sound
Ringhaddy is about a 20-30min boat ride from Portaferry/Strangford although obviously this will depend on the sea state. The boat can be reached from the shore
Empire Tanya, Ballyhenry Bay
Used in D-Day landings after the war (1947/1948) the boat was purchased by the breakers yard ‘John Lee’ operating from Ballyhenry Bay. Whilst delivering the ship to the breakers, she struck a rock and sank and subsequently broke in two. The wreck does not have a permanent shot on
The Inner Lees is the bow section of a large ship which is sitting upright in 12m of water only 5mins from Portaferry. As with the Alastor the Inner Lees can be dived from either the shore (100m fin) or a boat and at any state of the tide. This is an easy dive where the visibility is normally 2-4m. This wreck breaks the surface (except at high water) and so can be found easily without transits. It is an excellent dive for novices and experienced diver s alike. There is a lot of life to be found underneath the wreck particularly on the channel side. There are plenty of opportunities to enter the wreck and practice penetration skills, line laying etc. It would also make a superb night dive.
This is the stern section to the Inner Lee’s bow and is located further out into the lough meaning that it is only accessible from a boat, a journey which will take approximately 5-10mins from Portaferry. The wreck lies in 15m of water and will normally break the surface although it may be covered during HW springs. There can be quite a current on this wreck at certain times, so it is only diveable on slacks. The best slack period on this wreck starts approximately an hour and a half after Belfast LW or an hour and forty five minutes after Belfast HW and lasts for full ebb if on neap tides or for around 3hrs if on spring tides. Both the Inner and Outer Lees may be penetrated quite easily and so are ideal for training purposes.
Gun’s Island, Ballyhornan, Lecale Coast
This is a scenic dive which can be dived at any state of the tide. The dive itself has a maximum depth of 16m and takes you around a small rocky outcrop which is close to the mainland. There are sheer walls on both sides, large boulders and the odd swim-through. As the sea-bed is made up of small stones the visibility can be quite good here as there’s not much silt to be kicked up. This dive is around 20-30mins from Portaferry depending on the sea state.
The S.S. Georgetown Victory was built as a Victory Class troopship in 1945 in the U.S.A. In 1946 she left Sydney for Glasgow with 1,200 Royal Navy men and Marines due for demob after WWII. Inexplicably she mistook Strangford Lough for the Clyde and ran aground. Winter storms later separated the wreck into two parts. Some sections of the wreck were subsequently salvaged.
The Strangford Lough Code for Divers & Snorkelers
We want your visit to Strangford Lough to be extraordinary! The lough contains some our most diverse and productive habitats and is the largest sea inlet in the British Isles. The Lough and its coastline is also a protected by law as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) for species and habitats, a Special Protection Area (SPA) for birds, and as an Area of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI). This protection places a responsibility on everyone who visits and enjoys using the lough to respect and conserve its special features for future generations to admire and treasure as we do now.
This code relates only to Strangford Lough and should be used in addition to existing diver’s codes, safety advice and good practice guidance. Also included is advice on the collection of seafood and local Byelaws in the lough.
Please not the Strangford Lough Regulations of Anchoring, Mooring and Diving Byelaws, which prohibit diving in certain parts of the lough. See map http://www.doeni.gov.uk
Take note of fishing (scallops, crab and lobster) restrictions. For more information contact the DoE Marine Division Ranger or see (website) Remember to keep within the limits of your training, most recreational agencies advise a limit of 50m on air, with lower depth limits for less qualified divers It is essential for all divers to carry SMBs in case of separation from the boat and deploy them on surfacing – it is surprising how far you can drift on a deco stop! Drift diving in the Narrows between Walter Rock and Cook Street Pier is dangerous and not recommended as this area is used by the Ferry. If you wish to dive here please notify the Coastguard and Ferry Service Staff (contact details below) Many areas of Strangford Lough shore are privately owned, please observe and respect signs on slipways, shores and islands Divers currently enjoy a good relationship with fishermen. Please do not dive near pots, interfere with fishing gear, or dive in areas where fishing boats are operating. Dive carefully – careless finning and uncontrolled buoyancy damages sensitive marine wildlife and habitats The collection of any plant or animal within the Lough is discouraged. Collection for scientific purposes may require consent from the department. The use of spear guns, spears, gaffs etc. is prohibited Avoid physical contact with marine wildlife. If you wait, the wildlife will come to you! Do not approach or chase wildlife. Birds and seals are protected by law and are particularly sensitive to disturbance at haul-out and nesting / feeding sites. For guidance on safe distances please see http://www.wisescheme.org Dive boats should keep to a slow speed (5 knots) when within 200m of the shore or wildlife minimise wash and disturbance. Leave wrecks undamaged for the enjoyment of other divers. All finds must be reported to HM Coastguard, who acts for the Receiver of Wrecks in Northern Ireland. Take your litter and waste home!—It is estimated that over 50,000 marine mammals and an unknown number of birds and turtles die every year from entanglement or ingestion of marine litter.
Clubs, Opportunities, Disability Access
Contacts of diving clubs and dive training providers.
Diving in Northern Ireland – How To Get Started –
Belfast Sub-Aqua Club www.divebelfast.com/
Red Duck Diving Scuba diving Northern Ireland coasts: www.redduckdiving.co.uk/
DV Diving 138 Mountstewart Road,NewtownardsBT22 2ES.Telephone & Fax +44 (0)28 91 464671. Is a PADI Five Star Dive Centre, TDI Facility, RYA Training Centre and HSE recognised scuba assessment centre based at Strangford Lough offering a range of scuba, technical and commercial diving and powerboat training courses. www.dvdiving.co.uk/
Dolphin Sub Aqua Club www.dolphinsubaqua.co.uk/
Barholm Hostel in Portaferry (Tel: 028 42729598), has a self-catering kitchen and sometimes use of its own compressor. It can accommodate around 35 people. Parking is outside on the road so make trailors and equipment secure with good locks and wheel clamps if necessary.
An alternative in Portaferry is Fiddler’s Green B&B (Tel: 028 42728393) is a more than adequate substitute. The house sleeps 12 people and annexed to the Fiddler’s Green Pub. Parking can be had on the square or immediate streets.
Portaferry Recreation Hub Call 028 4272 8517 email@example.com
The Portaferry Recreation Hub aims to facilitate local recreational groups and providers by making available a professionally equipped environment for recreational coaches, leaders and users. A fully equipped “Muster” room provides the perfect venue for any outdoor recreation provider to brief participants on their days events. With showers, changing facilities, white boards, audio visual equipment and lockers available, the Hub facilities are ideal for sailing, canoeing, walking, diving, triathlon and cycling clubs to base their days activities from.
Launching boats can be done off the Ferry slip but must be timed to be clear of the Ferry, an alternative slip is associated with the marina and another is at Cook Street Quay. The marina will take visiting boats but a fee will be charged according to boat length.
Boat launching in Strangford Lough is limited with the village of Strangford and Whiterock providing ” public slips.”
Wildlife and Sensitive Diving and Snorkeling
– Please note the Strangford Lough Regulations of Anchoring, Mooring and Diving Byelaws  , which prohibit diving in certain parts of the lough. See map http://www.doeni.gov.uk
– Take note of fishing (scallops, crab and lobster) restrictions. For more information contact the DoE Marine Division Ranger or see (website) – Dive carefully – careless finning and uncontrolled buoyancy damages sensitive marine wildlife and habitats – The collection of any plant or animal within the Lough is discouraged. Collection for scientific purposes may require consent from the department. – The use of spear guns, spears, gaffs etc. is prohibited – Avoid physical contact with marine wildlife. If you wait, the wildlife will come to you! – Do not approach or chase wildlife. Birds and seals are protected by law and are particularly sensitive to disturbance at haul-out and nesting / feeding sites. For guidance on safe distances please see http://www.wisescheme.org Dive boats should keep to a slow speed (5 knots) when within 200m of the shore or wildlife minimise wash and disturbance.
o report pollution – DoE Pollution Hotline on 0800 80 70 60
To report injured seals contact Exploris Aquarium (028) 427 28062 To report stranded marine mammals contact NIEA Regional Operations (028) 4461 5520 To record sightings of whales, dolphins, turtles or sharks – http://www.iwdg.ie/index.php To record marine wildlife – http://www.nmni.com/cedar or through Seasearch http://www.seasearch.org.uk/northernireland General HM Coastguard/Search and Rescue enquiries – Tel: (023) 8032 9486 E-mail: SAR.Response@mcga.gov.uk Ferry Service http://www.nidirect.gov.uk/strangford-ferry-fares Sailing Clubs – http://www.strangfordlough.org/Get-Out-About/On-the-Water/Boats-and-Crafts.aspx Illegal fishing should be Reported to firstname.lastname@example.org or the Strangford Lough Fisheries Officer 07554 997663. For any other enquiries contact the DoE Marine Division Strangford Lough Ranger Emergency Contacts
In the event of an emergency while on board a vessel or during a dive call 999 or use Channel 16 on your VHF/ DSC Radio and ask for Belfast Coastguard
For emergencies on land call 999 and request police assistance or an ambulance